Editors’ Note: We’ve asked a number of authors to discuss the state of the American parish and what it means to be church in a time of migration and movement. We also wanted to offer practical suggestions for how parishes can be more welcoming, just, and Spirit-filled in these times. Together, our contributors provide a picture of the U.S. church today, one not so much in decline as undergoing a profound transition. To read all the articles, see the entire collection, The American Parish Today.
Some people mark out eras in their lives by the places they’ve lived or the jobs they’ve held. I measure mine in parishes.
I grew up in a Catholic parish south of Denver that sat on a hill and faced the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The church was the apotheosis of post–Vatican II architecture, rounded and dark and a little odd. The walls were built of brown brick, the kind that clung to your clothes like Velcro if you leaned against them. Olive-green and burnt-orange carpet blanketed the floors, and ruddy tile gave the narthex a smoldery, numinous glow. The western-facing wall was made of plate-glass windows. As a kid, I spent most of Sunday Mass transfixed by rose-colored rays of sunlight shooting through the clouds onto the snowy face of Mt. Evans, a view that lent an organic logic to the sacraments: God, too, could be both grand and intimate, both transcendent and earthy.
Every summer, my parents shuttled my siblings and me off to visit our great-aunts in Streator, Illinois, a small, rural town ninety miles south of Chicago where my mother’s side of the family had lived for generations. Once there, we melded into life at their parish, St. Stephen’s. The church was the oldest Slovak parish in the United States, a distinction my Slovak-American family wore with pride. My siblings and I spent our summer breaks helping our aunts and the other ladies of the Altar and Rosary Society run the parish rummage sale, sell rozek, and lead the rosary at the local Catholic nursing home. At St. Stephen’s, the liturgical reforms of the Second Vatican Council were still being received in the 1990s. Mass-goers still knelt at the extant altar rail to receive the Eucharist on the tongue, a practice as foreign as it was enchanting to a nine-year-old future Millennial. St. Stephen’s was like an immersion trip into the Catholic past, into a world of ethnic religious enclaves that otherwise only existed for me in old family photos.
After college, I moved to Brownsville, Texas, to teach middle school with a Catholic postgraduate service program. My local parish, San Felipe de Jesus, sat in the heart of the colonia of Cameron Park, known as much for its one-time designation as the poorest place in the United States as for its tradition of social organizing. Most parishioners were Mexican immigrants, documented and undocumented alike. Many lived on both sides of the border, regularly traversing the international bridge between Brownsville and neighboring Matamoros to shop or go to the dentist or visit loved ones. At San Felipe, the porosity of the Rio Grande Valley borderlands was manifested liturgically. Prayers, processions, and posadas regularly flowed onto the streets, blurring the boundary between church and everyday life.
Later, I moved to Boston for graduate school. Two thousand miles north of the Rio Grande Valley, I found myself worshipping in a different sort of borderland: St. Mary of the Angels, a small parish in Roxbury that served a tightly knit, multiethnic, multilingual community composed primarily of African-American, Afro-Caribbean, Latinx, and Irish-American Catholics. At the 9 a.m. English-language Mass, the affective high point of the liturgy was the Sign of Peace. As the choir sang “This Little Light of Mine,” worshippers would spill out of their pews to embrace one another. Elderly Jamaican women kissed the cheeks of white thirty-somethings, while gregarious toddlers (including my own) darted down the aisles to collect as many hugs as time would allow. To the dismay of newly arrived priests, exchanges of “Peace be with you” were usually accompanied by “How’s the baby?” or “Will you be at the meeting later?” Eventually the music would taper off and people would wipe the tears from their eyes and take deep breaths and slowly recede into their pews. It remains the only parish I’ve ever belonged to where everyone knew everyone else by name and noticed if you were gone.
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